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Chiang Mai and the Panya Project: An experiment in the present tense.

THAILAND | Saturday, 29 December 2007 | Views [4626]

17 December

I first read about the Panya Project on Wikipedia. As you do. Some of you might remember I was talking about how pleasing I thought it would be to keep chickens. My chicken research led to my permaculture research which led to Panya. They accept volunteers, and emails confirmed that now is an excellent time to be visiting and participating in the goings on. When people in Chiang Mai asked where I was going next I said that I was going to hang out with a bunch of hippies. Invite me to stay at your house and I'd be just as contemptuous of you too.

So I follow some rather curly directions to an alley behind a market on the north side of Chiang Mai's city centre, searching for a white songtao/sangthaew "slightly larger than the rest" that might whisk me away to hippyville in the hills beyond Chiang Mai.

Add this to your mental picture: I am majestically hungover.

I have spent the previous afternoon and evening alternately "helping" with a rice harvest and knocking back shots of rice whisky with farmers. I have exclaimed that said rice whisky really isn't that strong, and poured another round for everyone. I have passed out on the ride back to the hostel and awoken at 4am, fortunately completely clothed. I have only been able to stomach dry white toast for breakfast.


Rice harvest. Taken before I passed out, obviously.

I am hungover. I am ravenous. The day is hot. I am carrying a heavy backpack and looking for a sangthaew "slightly larger than the rest" down an alley behind a market north of the city centre.

When I find the vehicle the poster inside the truck says "Enjoy the journey!"

I dump my backpack and stock up on rice and a stunning array of battered, fried goods at the market. That's not my hangover speaking: That was seriously all I can find. They do a wicked fried chicken leg in Chiang Mai. Also fried banana, fried potato and the obligatory mystery sausage.

The "bus" isn't so much a "bus" as a supply vehicle for the markets and shops in the towns around Panya. So in addition to my sorry arse, the bus also ends up being full of various vegetables, bushels of fried buffalo skin, twittering birds in a sack, beetles, beer, and Thai people. We take detours all along the way to pick people and goods up, drop people and goods off. Eventually I'm the only one left on the truck and I get to pass boxes of UHT milk and beer out through the window.

There's something very satisfying about passing packages out the window.

After two and a half hours the truck dumps me at the start of a dirt road. The dirt is red. I start walking. One thing I notice immediately is the clarity of the air compared with everywhere else I've been in Thailand. There's no smog, no humidity haze. It's like I've been wearing filthy sunnies up until this point, and now I've switched them for some spanking new, clean brown lenses. Everything is golden.

I follow the signs and the road gets slightly less well trodden. I arrive at a structure resembling a house with no walls, with white chicks lounging around in hammocks and soothing music emanating. I am greeted and treated to the first of many yellow passionfruit. I feel like I've died and gone to heaven, except unlike my heaven of the two weeks previous, this heaven is full of the prospect of satisfying labour and accomplishment.

I am informed that I have arrived on a weird day. The water pump is broken and this puts a halt to pretty much all activity around the farm. Add to this that Christian and Julia (Mum and Dad, says one of the lounging white chicks) are down in Chiang Mai for the the day. So there's nothing to do.

That's fine by me. I go up and nap off the remainder of my hangover.

The evening brings the return of Christian and Julia, and the invasion of Panya by interns and students of the neighbouring farm/school for a contra dance. Contra dance? It's kind of like folk dancing. Lots of walking in circles, twirling your partner, sidling, hand grabbing, giggling. The house band plays their guitars, mandolins, bongos et al while a guy stands in front of a laptop calling out things like "right hand star three quarters" and "gypsy your partner!"

All this in a house with no walls. Tiled floor, open to the elements on all sides. If the lights and the music went off there would be very little separating us from the forest and farmland that surrounded us. You come to realise how important things like light, noise, and people are to defining your home space. And similarly, how unimportant additional embellishments are. Light, noise and people kept the night out. It was super fun.

I spend the next day raking dead grass out of the "garage". This is a mud brick building that was never finished, but which will be getting a bit of loving when they run a natural building workshop in February. The grass inside the garage had been allowed to grow up as high as the walls of the building itself. Some poor soul had the job of chopping it down and now I got to rake it out.

Blisters. Beautiful blisters. I bet there were no blisters on my island heaven.


The to-be-completed garage. Note the absence of tall grass inside.

The fact that the pump is broken means that bathing is a slightly more old fashioned affair. We change into our swim-things, take whatever organic, biodegradable toiletries we care to and walk for twenty minutes down to the reservoir.

The reservoir is a beautiful spot, couched in amongst some gentle humpy hills and surrounded by forest. In the late afternoon the sun slants across half the lake and turns the trees a golden green. The water is alternately warm and blissfully cool. It's too deep to touch the bottom, and my body feels extraordinarily heavy in the fresh water compared to the salty sea water of the weeks previous.

You jump in, swim around, crawl out again (trying not to get too muddy in the process), lather yourself up with your organic, biodegradable toiletries and then jump back in again. I feel a little bad about putting these things in the water, but I'm assured that a) the water is only used for irrigation, and b) mountain lakes like this are pretty good at cleaning themselves of the relatively minor pollutants we're contributing.

Then, refreshed, damp, with invariably wet asses from swimsuits seeping through trousers, we walk in silent single file back through the grass that slices your ankles, through the forest with its lengthening shadows, along the road that looks out over cleared land to the opposite side of the valley and the forests beyond, and back to our house with no walls, with its light, music, talking and cooking sounds.

Remember my chicken fascination? Turns out I'd missed the chickens at Panya. The chickens they'd had had become an unruly mob, so they'd killed them all. They also lost all their bees. The only thing they seem to have flourishing and bearing fruit in their garden is passionfruit and the ubiquitous green papaya.

For sleeping, the "dorm" is two rows of mosquito net-shrouded mattresses above the main living area of the Sala (house with no walls). Additionally, they cook all their meals on two wood stoves. To put it together, one of my prevailing memories of Panya will be being woken up by the sound of chopping and the slightly acrid smell of burning wood as somebody starts the fire up to cook breakfast at around 6.30am.

The toilet is a composting "humanure" toilet. It sits like lord of the land way up high, sporting two toilet areas. One area is put to use with a big hole in the floor and a couple of planks across for standing on. Make a contribution, add a scoop of rice husks. When that area is "full" it gets boarded up and kept out of use for six months to enable the poo and rice husks to compost, and the other side is opened up for contributions.


The poo is down the bottom, no pun intended.

There is a cob stove. I didn't see it get used while I was there, but the idea is that you build a great big fire inside the cob stove to heat the cob, which retains the heat. You can then do a giant bake. Pizzas go first, since they require the greatest heat. Biscuits, cakes, breads etc come after. All the baking done in one day, and it happens every couple of weeks or so. We also had bread for breakfast. This is one of the great mysteries of Panya for me: How did we get bread in the morning every day with only the wood stoves?


The cob oven. I like the shape.

Panya exists as a part-of-the-year, use-it-when-you-want home for twelve permanent "members" and whatever volunteers, interns, school groups and workshop participants they can rope in during the year. The idea for it came from Christian, who (if I remember correctly) had what basically amounts to a "what the fuck am I doing with my life?" moment when he finished college. He decided that he wanted to have something that would be all about a lifelong learning process, and so he put a proposal to fifty or sixty of his friends: Chip in money, buy some land, make a community. Twelve people decided to give it a go.

They chose Thailand for a number of reasons: Christian had gone to school there. It's cheap. It has a supportive Thai community and existing projects of a similar nature that could help out initially. It has extremely relaxed building regulations, allowing you to put up basically any structure you want on your land. (Not so easy in countries where permits and things are required). It has a kind climate that lends itself to gardening. Perhaps most importantly: It's cheap. They bought a pretty reasonable glob of land for less than USD$10,000.

I think all this is extremely cool.

The farm itself as we see it has only really been established in the past year and a half. The sala was built about a year ago. The gardens established a bit after that. A lot of trees and things that were planted less than a year ago have absolutely shot up. I can't imagine seeing that kind of growth in New Zealand. Plants love Thailand.

Also: There's natural building. For want of a better description I guess that's just building structures out of natural materials, but mostly things like cob, wattle and daub, adobe, etc.

I got to muck in and do some wattle and daub on a house going up at the back of the property. For those uninitiated, this is a method where you make a giant mud pit and stomp the mud up until it's the smooth consistency of chocolate pudding. Then you take fistfuls of long dry grass and coat this in the mud, making sure that every strand is good and muddy. We referred to these as "dreads" because they look like dreadlocks.

Then when you've got a bucket full of dreads, you can go and start putting them on the house. You drape your dread over one of the cross beams of bamboo in a curtain like fashion, equal on both sides. Then you mush the two sides together. Then you mush everything in with the other dreads that have already been mushed on. It's all very filthy and satisfying.


The wattle and daub house.

And then at the end of the day, when you estimate you've got just enough time before the sun goes down, you take a walk down to the reservoir to scrub off the day's activities. You walk back and help prepare dinner. They ring the bell when dinner is ready to call everyone from corners of the farm. We sit around some low tables on cushions and wicker stools and stuff ourselves with papaya salad, fried rice, stirfry, passionfruit and pineapple. We wash our dishes in three cold water basins: One for soapyness, one for rinsing, one full of drinking water for final rinsing. We leave these to dry on the racks and play "Shithead" (the cardgame favoured by 8 out of 10 itinerants), or "Mafia" (I'm a supremely crap liar, but they still don't kill me), or watch a DVD projected onto a white sheet. We brush our teeth at the communal tooth brushing station. We either go pee in the bushes or make a contribution to the composting toilet, then don our headtorches and head up to the loft, crawl under our mosquito nets and go to sleep to the sound of people going about their quiet business in the space below.


Misra washing some stuff like a good kitchen bitch.

It's nice. I liked it. Then my visa began its slow walk to expiry and I had to leave. Three girls and their backpacks piled into the sidecar of a little motorbike (Yeah, Thai-style!), skillfully maneuvered by Christian down the dirt road to the main road where we flagged down a white songthaew heading to Chiang Mai.

Which is where I am now. Can't get away from this town. There's something about the free internet that keeps me coming back.

So tomorrow and the next day is going to see me head up to Chiang Rai (three hours), Chiang Khong (4 hours) and then jump across the mighty Mekong to Laos. Another country! Just when I've got the hang of this one!

Hopefully they have more chickens there.


Travel Thai Style (as in, fit as many people onto the smallest vehicle you can find.

Tags: I suck

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